For a good few years, I thought Thor: The Dark World was the best of the Thor movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After recently re-watching Thor, I changed my mind on that. After now re-watching Thor: The Dark World, I’ve fully figured out why I changed my mind.
To be clear, I still very much like this movie and I don’t consider it to be a weak link in the MCU. In fact, based on what I’ve observed in this re-watch, it’s certainly one of the strongest because it came before “The Tonal Turn” as I am thinking I’m going to be calling it. The moment when the MCU changed its tonal structure and became a franchise more interested in levity and banality than it was in telling serious stories with levity well-placed within it. No, while Thor: The Dark World definitely has a humorous tone at times, it hardly dominates the movie and that’s a big reason it’s still one of the better ones in the MCU.
Structurally speaking, this movie is the opposite of its predecessor. Or rather, it’s taken a very different focus. You could argue that the bulk of the first Thor movie took place on Earth after Thor’s banishment from Asgard, but this time since he is anything but banished (despite his committing treason halfway through), the bulk of Thor: The Dark World takes place on Asgard, or at the very least “somewhere that isn’t Earth” because we go to about five or six worlds in this film, which in itself is pretty awesome.
We get exposition at the beginning about our villain Malekith, played by Christopher Eccleston. He’s the leader of the Dark Elves that were hellbent on bringing darkness to all nine realms through the use of the Aither AKA The Reality Stone. They were defeated by Odin’s father King Bor and the Aither was hidden on a remote world where no one could find it while Malekith sacrificed his own people to escape and live to fight another day.
Fast forward to the present and wouldn’t you know it, Jane Foster is the one who stumbles upon the damn thing. It’s been two years since she’s seen Thor because as we know, he didn’t say hello during the Battle of New York, and in the middle of her trying some weird speed dating with Roy from The IT Crowd (Chris O’Dowd), Darcy informs of her of “weird science” happening in London where they are, and she stumbles upon the Convergence, allowing her to pass through to the world that houses the Aither and she is infected with it.
This causes Heimdall not to be able to see her and Thor rushes down to Earth via a clearly rebuilt Bifrost that no one mentioned had been repaired since the end of Thor, to make sure she’s okay. When he sees that she’s infected, he brings her back to Asgard to get her checked out and that’s where the bulk of the movie really gets going. We spend way more time with the Asgardians and less time with any humans in this film and that’s such a good thing because we’ve been hanging around Earth so much in this franchise through the first seven movies that it’s time for a bit of a break.
The byplay between the Asgardians is really good here. At the beginning of the movie, Loki was imprisoned, and we see the tension between him and Odin, not to mention a sneak peek into his affection for his mother Frigga, played once again by Rene Russo. She had slightly more to do in this movie than in the first one but not by much and she unfortunately doesn’t last long as she is killed in the middle of Malekith’s attack on Asgard to attempt to bring the Aither out of Jane.
Ok, a few things here. First of all, Odin is a jackwagon in this movie and that’s important because it does two things: It shows how much better a leader Thor is becoming than him, so you trust his judgment way more than you did in the first movie, and it’s foreshadowing for the sins we later find out Odin committed in Thor: Ragnarok. More on that second one when we get to it. Right now, we’re mourning Frigga’s death, and everyone is upset, including Loki who might be the most devastated by it. Her funeral scene is heartbreakingly gorgeous, but it confirmed something that I think is by far the number one problem with this movie. The whole time I was watching it, I kept asking myself “why isn’t this movie as good as Thor?” It’s not because there’s too much comedy because there really isn’t, it’s not because the acting is any weaker because everyone is back from the first movie with the exception of Joshua Dallas, the actor who played Fandral and was replaced by Zachary Levi in this movie, and even though Eccleston, the ninth doctor himself is wasted as a weak plot device villain in Malekith, the story isn’t a bad one overall. There’s definitely not a pacing problem at 112 minutes, the shortest MCU film to this point in the franchise, so what is it exactly?
It's the direction, to say the least. I’m not being funny, and I really don’t mean any disrespect to Alan Taylor here, but the way this movie is shot and directed is just sterile compared to the first Thor movie. Kenneth Branagh made his mark on Thor with creative camera angles, Dutch Tilt, playing with perspective and balance all throughout the film along with its Director of Photography, Haris Zambarloukos. The result was a movie that had its own soul and personality in a visual sense. I’ve heard some people say that this was because Thor was shot on film, but I disagree. Shooting a movie on digital instead of film shouldn’t cause you to sterilize your cinematography, but in this case the director and the DP did, and it loses something emotionally that it could have capitalized on. The content and the performances are there from the cast and crew, but the image is just a little too robotic and much too safe. It’s really a disappointment to see because that alone could have really catapulted this movie into the level of its predecessor.
Aside from that, Thor: The Dark World is a seriously solid entry and it moves the plot of the franchise along in a big way. For the first time, we hear the phrase “Infinity Stone” as both the Tesseract and the Aither are identified as such in the mid-credit scene. We begin to see Loki’s transformation from full-blown villain into antagonist, which is something further reinforced in a big way in Thor: Ragnarok later. As the Thor movies should be doing, it expands the world of the MCU past Earth and into the galaxy and this certainly does that, indicating that it’s not just humanity involved in what’s going on out there. That’s an important message here.
Obviously, we get the cliffhanger at the end where we see Loki impersonating Odin after faking his death on The Dark World, presumably taking over Asgard with Thor leaving to live on Earth. Who would have thought we’d have to wait four years and nine movies to get any kind of resolution on that, but as it turns out a lot happened between now and then and just before we make that “Tonal Turn,” there’s one more deadly serious story the MCU had to tell first in what is arguably the franchise’s finest hour. Stay tuned.